After being cooped up for months, it seems everyone had the same idea this summer: get in the car and experience the natural beauty and grandeur of a national park! Many of these protected areas saw record attendance—all the more reason to plan a visit for the off-season. From stunning waterfalls and towering redwoods to mountain vistas and epic sand dunes, each of our picks have unique charms, and all are within an eight-hour drive of Orange County. It’s time to tick these iconic spots off your travel wish list!
✓Birdwatching ✓Climbing ✓Caves ✖Crowds
312 miles from Orange County
“A Pinnacles National Park would preserve a unique portion of our land: not only a critical record of geological time … but also a rare habitat for condors, a wide array of flowers, and 400 species of bees.”
— Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker
National Geographic magazine describes Pinnacles National Park as “a geologic wonderland of jutting volcanic spires, cliffs, and peaks located in the dense chaparral country of the Gabilan Range.” It’s one of the country’s least-visited national parks—and the least visited in California.
Though President Theodore Roosevelt established Pinnacles as a national monument in 1908, it is the nation’s newest national park, approved in 2013 by President Barack Obama.
Its igneous formations attract climbers; its proximity to vineyards also attracts oenophiles. One prominent feature of the park is Chalone Peak; on its flanks, just outside the west entrance, is Chalone Vineyards, renowned for its chardonnay and pinot noir.
Birdwatchers are treated to a wide variety of species at Pinnacles, including the California condor, often spotted atop pinnacles along the High Peaks Trail, known for precarious sections traversed via steps chiseled into the rock. The birds also roost on a ridgeline high above the park campground; bring binoculars. The species became nearly extinct in the wild in 1987 but was reintroduced to several national parks, notably Pinnacles, Grand Canyon, and Zion.
Among other winged denizens, more prairie falcons breed per square mile here than anywhere else in North America. The number of bee species represents the greatest diversity density anywhere on Earth. There are about a dozen species of bats in a pair of talus caves, Bear Gulch on the east side and Balconies to the west.
The caves are closed when the bats are breeding and for flooding. When they are open, bring flashlights or headlamps; significant sections of both are narrow and pitch black.
Pinnacles has two entrances with no connecting road. The approach to the east side, and the campground, is via remote ranchland with no services for 50 miles. The entrance to the west side is 5 miles east of Soledad.
Wild and remote, Pinnacles is usually low on crowds. The trade-off is a lack of lodging. Pinnacles Campground offers tent camping ($37 per night), RV sites, coin-operated showers, a camp store, and a swimming pool during the warmer months. There are also motels in Soledad ($110 to $130 per night).
There are no restaurants inside Pinnacles National Park, but Mexican restaurants in Soledad include quaint Cocuyo’s. Casa de Fruta is a sprawling roadside food emporium and American restaurant north of Hollister.